Unsurprising to no one, Brooklyn had fewer speakeasies to dine at than Harlem, but if you looked hard enough, you too could find yourself in a basement of drunken, feathery rule breakers too drunk to stay straight.
And despite it being a Thursday night, Brooklyn was astir with noise. Horse-drawn carriages carried couples to their midnight destinations. A theater was advertising Metropolis for a cool twenty-five cents. Vincenzo had gone to see it with his Nonna back in spring. Those “robots” scared the daylights out of him. He wondered if Sylvia would enjoy it, or if she’d ever been to the theater before.
“Where is it that you wanted to go?” he asked her while he drove. “Knowing my Nonna, she’s probably asleep by now, and I don’t have any obligations until tomorrow evening.”
“I already said what I wanted to do. I want to drink.”
He took his eyes off the road to make sure she was okay. She was curled up in the passenger seat like a cat. The underneath of her eyes were red, but she hadn’t sobbed once, not even after yelling at her mother.
“That sounded a bit too harsh, didn’t it?” she asked. “Too aggressive. I’m feeling strange tonight, Vincenzo. I apologize for my rudeness.”
“Actually,” she said, “actually, I’m not sorry. Why should I apologize for feeling how I feel? Men don’t apologize nearly as much for their feelings, yet women are expected to not only apologize but accept everything all the time. I’m well tired of it.”
“I don’t suppose you have to apologize for that,” he said. “You were brave tonight, going against that witch. I caught a bit of what you yelled at her on the beach. It was nice, seeing that side of you.”
“That’s why I want to drink. We’ve earned it after withstanding our parents.”
He nodded. Being as docile as she was, it’d surprised him to hear her yell like that. He never asked about the details of her past, as he knew personally that those questions could sometimes open up painful wounds, but he couldn’t imagine how cathartic it must’ve felt. To scream at your abuser about all the pain they’d inflicted on you, and to just walk away like that. If that’d been him with his father, boy, he’d be in trouble. Or dead. He liked to think his father wasn’t ruthless enough to actually kill him.
“I know a bar down here,” Vincenzo said. “It’s called the Viola Tavern. I supply them rum every now and again. Want to go there?”
“Honestly, you can take me to an abandoned shack without a rooftop and I’d be happy.”
He turned onto Fort Hamilton Parkway down near McKinley Park. “Well, this place is better than a shack.”
At times. The Viola Tavern was a typical speakeasy that you needed to enter in through the back. The Black Kitten was less demonstrative because everyone who needed it knew it existed. The first floor was near empty, lights always off, dusty as hell. Only those who knew where to go—through the first floor, down the cellar stairs near the bathrooms—could fully partake in the bar’s gifts.
This bar had a backdoor in the alley with a guard stationed behind it. Typical. You even needed a password to get in that changed every other month.
When the bouncer opened the door, Vincenzo pushed through the non-intimidating man and blocked Sylvia from taking in his stench. It looked like he wanted to say something. He was wise to keep it to himself.
“Not a friend, I take it,” Sylvia whispered.
“Oh, he’s a shit. He hates black people, never lets them in even when they come in through the back. One day, I got into a fight with him about it. I won. He used to be the manager of this place, now he’s a nobody bouncer.” He puffed out his chest. “I showed him, didn’t I?”
She wrapped both of her arms around his. “My, look at my strong, handsome man, fighting for the freedom of his people.”
“‘His people’, huh?”
“Yes. I heard those unlawful laws affect Sicilian men, don’t they?”
“Oh.” He entered the main floor. “That’s what you meant.”
The Viola Tavern had a different feeling from the Kitten that always made him feel more claustrophobic than usual. It was darker, for one, with less welcoming talent performing on stage. One lone trumpeter sat in the corner with his hat out for tips. Nobody acknowledged him as they drank alone at their candlelit tables. The bartender was dozing off near the sink.
“How, uh,” Sylvia said, “well, dreadful.”
“It’s a shit place for my fine liquors. I send my best to the Kitten, of course, this place just gets the leftovers.”
“I much prefer the Kitten.”
“We’ll leave in a jiffy. Just watch this. I think it’s the most fascinating thing.” He checked who was serving drinks. “Watch.”
The little man behind the counter, who was taking the orders of two kissing women, didn’t notice Vincenzo until he called for him. At the sound of his voice, he stiffened and almost dropped the glass he was cleaning to the floor. “E-evening, Sir.”
“Two scotch highballs and a gin Rickey,” Vincenzo said coldly, and the man, almost flustered by being demanded of so cruelly, left like a dog to make his drinks. He kept stealing glances at Vincenzo when he thought he wasn’t looking. It was the most fascinating thing. Vincenzo had never even threatened him to make him act this fearful.
When he obtained the drinks, he sat Sylvia down at a booth in the far corner. “Isn’t that something?” he asked her. “Poor kid is scared to death of me.”
“Scared?” Sylvia questioned.
“Yeah, didn’t you see the way he shakes? I’ve never said much to him, just drink orders and questions about the bar, but he trembles like a wet dog every time I talk to him.”
Sylvia put a hand to her mouth as she stared at him.
“Sweetheart, you’re at a pansy bar.”
“Yes, I know that. I’m tipsy, not drunk.”
“And men at pansy bars, what do they enjoy? Do they enjoy the company of men or—”
“That’s a trick question,” he said with confidence. He’d learned a thing or two from frequenting these bars. “Many of the men who come to these bars actually have a plethora of female friends. They don’t have companions like I have with Luis and Dominic, they’re like Laurence who have friends like you and Mitsuko.”
He didn’t sway her. “Yes, sweetheart, but men like that like handsome men, and what are you?”
She took his hand. “You’re handsome, darling. You’re one of the most handsome men I’ve ever met, so when you visit these places dressed like this, you turn the heads of several men seeking the company of other men.”
Vincenzo looked at her, looked at her some more, took another sip from his glass, then said, “You’re wrong.”
“That man was blushing.”
“But he always blushes, that’s just what he does.”
“So he blushes whenever you speak with him?”
“He…” Vincenzo turned to the bartender.
He giggled to himself, waved, then ran into the back.
Vincenzo turned back around. “No.”
“Vincenzo, I’ve been in bars longer than you have. I know the signs.”
“Well, some men don’t enjoy the pleasures of a woman—”
“No, no, I know that, but I’m not like that. I don’t like men.”
“It doesn’t matter if you do, Dear, you still attract their attention. They’re all around you, you know. They don’t have to look like Laurence to be different.” She pointed at two shady men sitting in the corner. While he couldn’t see their faces, he saw that one was bald, another was a large man wearing a bowler hat. “Those two could be having a romantic date together, yet they look as manly and normal as ever.”
As if able to hear them, the two men got up at the same time and left through one of the back doors.
“Right,” Vincenzo said, feeling slightly warm. “I should say something to the poor kid. I don’t want him getting the wrong idea.”
“Hm,” Sylvia said, and drank her drink in silence.
He tried to make conversation with her after that about Campo’s party and how dull this bar was compared to the Kitten, but she seemed bored with him all of a sudden. All he got was a “hm” or a “quite.” She slouched into her hand and sighed. Was this another one of her upsets? Was her Moon waning?
She got properly drunk, though, and after her two cocktails, both of them left with their arms slung around each other. The night had mashed up into yelling and saving and running. His father and Sylvia’s mother combined into a horrid monster they needed to flee from. Vincenzo’s blurry vision made that challenging.
“We should wait until I sober up before I get behind the wheel,” he said.
“I agree. Agreeable. Your sight is rather poor tonight.”
“What does that mean?”
She shrugged, unsure of herself.
Outside the Viola Tavern was a residential area with grocery stores on the corners and pockets of parks between the condensed housing. Down near one of Nonna’s favorite churches was McKinley Park. Vincenzo liked it because he could wait over on the steps and watch the birds frolic. He didn’t feel like he belonged in church, sadly. He’d rather listen to the sermons outside, fingers threaded around his cross necklace.
“Where’re we going?” Sylvia asked.
“Where do you want to go? Wanna go home? Go hit up another bar?”
“No.” She stopped. “Here.” She tugged him into the middle of the road. They had to dodge a car and skip over the trolley tracks in order to make it over unscathed. “A romantic date in the park. Take me.”
As if he had a choice. Though he thought it cliche, he decided to humor her if it meant finding out why she was acting so strangely. He’d seen her drunk. This wasn’t her just drunk.
They followed a path down to the center of the park. Vincenzo glanced down all the spiderweb ways and saw nobody around, only the shadows of trees and the whooshing of the autumn air. He relaxed a bit. “Is something wrong?”
“Do you want to go home? Are you tired? Are you upset?”
“No,” she moaned. “How many bars do you own?”
“I don’t ‘own’ any. I keep them in check. I provide them with alcohol.”
“But you own them! You do. Don’t lie. How many bartenders do you know at these bars? How many Laurences and Viola Tavern curly-haired boys are there? I’d like to meet them. I’d like to know more about these boys.”
The slow realization dawned over his half-lidded eyes. “Are you jealous?”
She didn’t say no. She didn’t say anything. Just pouted, face scrunched up like a child.
Since meeting her, Vincenzo had seen Sylvia as a goddess, someone who’d survived through so much and became this untouchable force of healing energy. She hated no one, forgave everyone for everything. But since hearing her fight back against her mother, this vision of her was cracking. Now she was becoming less of an untouchable goddess and more of a reachable, flawed girl he couldn’t help but fall in love with.
He smiled. “You’re jealous, aren’t you? You’re jealous that someone was flirting with me.”
“And so what if I am?” she asked. “Is that a bad thing? I can be jealous. We’re together, aren’t we?”
“Yes, but I’m surprised you got jealous over someone so insignificant.”
“Because I’ve never seen someone fawn over you. It’s only ever been me.” She crossed her arms. “Let me fawn over you more.”
“No. I feel like I’m not allowed to. You flinch or shy away like a timid little house cat, and then I feel like I’m taking advantage of you.”
“Taking advantage of me?”
“Yeah,” she whined. “I feel guilty for liking you so extremely. I don’t wanna feel that way anymore, but, but I don’t wanna feel like what I’m feeling is in any way bad.”
“I-it’s not,” he stuttered, not sure why she was explaining this to him in a public park. “It’s completely valid.”
“It is. You know, I’m a sensual person. I’m a woman in tune with my feelings. I…I…”
To settle her, he brought her around behind a thick tree. She was shivering through her coat.
“I don’t want to feel ashamed of it any longer,” she whispered.
“I know,” he said.
“I love you very much, and I don’t have money to buy you this and this.” She lifted up her pearls, her dress. “All I can give you is my heart. I want to love you.” She blushed. “I want to make love to you, in any way that I can, to show you that I care.”
Now he was burning hot. His brain, heart, and drink were fighting against him. He saw quick visions of her in bed, with him, naked and doing…
He mentally blocked that out and hugged her. “I’m sorry you’ve felt ashamed of that because of me and my failures.”
“But they’re not failures! Neither of us are failures. We have to keep telling ourselves that.”
“I know.” He leaned up and kissed her cheek, trying to make up for his drawbacks. He thought he’d done a spectacular job tonight. His time on the balcony? Him playing off of her excitement after he’d sung to her? It amazed him that most people expected more, and that he was in the minority with his feelings.
But as much as she shouldn’t have felt ashamed for her feelings, he couldn’t just open himself up to her romantically. As much as she begged for it, making love with her was something he could never do. His childhood had made sure of that.
Though he supposed this drunken fog he was swimming through did let him ponder over the other ways of displaying sexuality. Hands were an option, and tongues. And, as he thought further, other objects could become his substitute, and it shouldn’t have mattered what the object was, so long as she climbed that mountain and he was the one to help her along.
He double-checked that they were alone, then dropped his virgin hands down to her bottom.
She inhaled into his hair, leaning over and holding him.
“You shouldn’t have to get jealous over me,” he whispered. “You’re the one and only person I ever want to be with.”
“What a romantic.” Reciprocating his touches, she squeezed the roundness of his bottom, lifting him up to her height.
He gasped. Her individual fingers, touching his…
It wasn’t arousing, he didn’t think, but his heart, it was beating so hard, filling him with feelings he’d never been introduced to before.
“Is this too much?” she asked him.
He thought it would be. If she’d asked him yesterday, he would’ve said it was beyond asking. He hated and was disgusted by his body, but he couldn’t tell her that. Men didn’t hate their bodies the same way women did. It didn’t happen.
But it did for him, very often.
Sylvia didn’t make him feel so terrible about it.
“It’s not too much,” he told her.
She smiled. “From abstinence to touching your woman in public. How indecent.”
“Quite the extreme, isn’t it?”
“Nothing I’m against.”
“So you want me to go further?”
“If you did that, I don’t know what I’d do.”
He kissed her long, exposed neck until it began turning red. “Tell me what you’d do.”
She moaned and spread open her legs against the bark of the tree. He watched the focus drain from her eyes. “I…I don’t know. Tell me what you’d want and I’ll do anything, anything.”
His thoughts scrambled to her and what she was open with. Was everything on the table? What was off the table? What was on his?
As he debating on telling her what he was thinking, a car pulled up on the road nearest the park. Its lights illuminated them to the world like a spotlight.
Vincenzo pulled back. “Who the hell is that?”
Sylvia was still unresponsive, so he hid her behind the tree to better conceal her dignity.
He strained his eyes. Near the front steps of the park, four men came into view. Their hats and coats veiled their identities, but Vincenzo had memorized one of the repugnant silhouettes from a street away.
Hannigan, with his motley crew of Irishmen, closed in on them. He didn’t see any of those stupid Tommy Guns they loved, but he did see a baseball bat in one of the bigger one’s hands.
“There you are, you slimy dog,” Hannigan called out to them. “Why is it that every time we catch word of you sneaking around New York, you’re somehow with this little tramp getting it on in public? Don’t you feel ashamed?”
Sylvia tensed up at Hannigan’s accent, then looked down at the gun still in Vincenzo’s pants.
He weighed his options: firing, causing a massive panic with somebody getting killed, or trying to talk with a man whose opinion didn’t matter, who’d hate them regardless of whatever they said.
A year ago, he would’ve fired. He wouldn’t have had a problem with finally taking this bastard’s life, one who had this weird fixation on his romantic interests. He’d held back with Sylvia’s mother. He’d been close, but he’d promised himself that he’d never kill anyone in front of Sylvia. He couldn’t do that to her.
He held back. It made the most sense. What was better than engaging with your enemy? Ignoring them completely, not giving in to their childless taunts meant to bring out the worst in you.
And so, they ran. Backwards through the park and between the trees like children playing tag. His car was too close to Hannigan. They would’ve never made it. They sprinted towards the Moon, their shadows casting onto Hannigan, who must’ve known he couldn’t catch them on foot. Vincenzo heard him curse and run back to his car, dictating his men like a drunk king.
“Where do we go?” Sylvia asked, easily keeping up with him despite wearing heels.
“Home,” he panted. “It takes about twenty minutes to get there by foot.”
“But won’t he still come after us? Won’t he attack your home? Everyone, they’re still at Campo’s party.”
“If this were anyone else, I’d worry. This’s just a pack of dogs that need a distraction. They won’t have the balls to attack us at my Nonna’s.”
“I believe you. My anxiety will say otherwise.”
“Don’t be. Hear that? No firing. This’s just a scare tactic.” They left the park and swung down into an alleyway where a car couldn’t chase them.
“Do you do this often?” she asked him.
“Usually in a car, yeah.”
“A little tiring.”
She splashed in a puddle. “Am I a bad person for liking this?”
“Probably the part where we’re running away from violent men through Brooklyn at night.”
“Oh, silly me.” He held open a chunk of a fence for her to slip through. “I thought it was about the two of us fondling one another passionately in the middle of a park.”
“You know, I’m on this kick of not looking down about how I feel, but this feeling of running from men is new. It’s not that bad for you, is it?”
“Not at all.”
“I suppose we’re the same.”
“Suppose we are.”
They paused before crossing the street, and Sylvia, through whatever revelations she was living through, grabbed Vincenzo by his lapel, slammed him against the wall, and kissed him, and through the shock and the loss of breath he was feeling, he kissed her back, wet and messy. He didn’t care that they were currently being chased. Big deal. These moments of both of them being okay with themselves enough to kiss and be kissed, he’d make time for that, even if the world wasn’t ready for it yet.