“Wait.” Mitsuko unfolded her napkin and reread her notes. “So you went to a rich and powerful gangster’s birthday party after you saw him shoot a gang he’s in contention with. Then you run into your mother whom you haven’t seen in ten years and finally stand up to her for all the pain she’s caused you. And Vincenzo almost shoots her, but it’s—”
“It’s not a big deal,” Sylvia repeated.
“Right. Sure. So then, after drinking yourself rotten, you get to second base with him in some park, which was then cut short because the gang who’d been shot at by the gangster boss found you, so you fled home to have sex—”
“A pleasure night,” Sylvia corrected.
“Pardon me, to have a ‘pleasure night’ with him, only for that to be cut short because the same man who broke into your home tried breaking into Vincenzo’s home by throwing a boulder through a window, and he didn’t even get the guy.”
Sylvia reread the cursive of Mitsuko’s handwriting. “Also, we cuddled for the rest of the night.”
“Oh, right. And…they…cuddled…all…night.” With the last of her information scrawled on her napkin notes, Mitsuko balled up her paper and tossed it at Sylvia’s face.
“Shut up. Your life sounds fake, Sylvia Belmonte, and very unsafe.”
She unfolded the napkin on her knee. They were all sitting together, she, her, and Laurence, at the Black Kitten’s bar. Mitsuko and Sylvia were sitting as patrons on their break while Laurence served them behind the counter. It was Halloween, or the Saturday before it, and most of the guests were dressed for the spooky weekend. Even the jazz musicians were in on the themed night. It got them a free plate of bruschetta and a fun night with friends.
Sylvia was wearing a typical flapper look with more feathers and sparkles than usual. Laurence was in a nice white suit, but with the flowers sticking out of his hair and around his lapel, he looked more like a flowerpot than a well-dressed bartender. Mitsuko, in her opinion, had on the strongest outfit—a full American soldier uniform, complete with a pointed bayonet. She’d said she wanted a French uniform since she was most familiar with it, but she couldn’t find one in time. Bobbie had on an orange tie with his black suit. It was the most he could do.
Vincenzo, sadly, couldn’t attend. He was currently in Canada on a weekend-long business trip, finalizing some type of contract on Campo’s behalf. So Luis and Dominic were her chauffeur to and from the Kitten. Dominic had refused, but Luis convinced him that he needed to “have fun.” That didn’t mean he dressed up—he was face-first at a booth across the bar, deep into his fourth glass of strawberry daiquiri—but Luis did. A tail, a pair of cat ears, and painted whiskers and he looked like a buzzed black cat.
“So after all of this, you’re still choosing to be with him?” Mitsuko asked. “I was in the Great War, you know. I dealt with bloodthirsty men who wanted to murder because they could. I dealt with women who had to end men’s lives because they were bleeding too much from the inside.” She toyed with the ring on her finger. “I just know when to fight my battles, and I know when my help isn’t needed. I want to make sure that this’s what you really, really want, enough that you’re willing to fight for it forever.”
Sylvia recalled that night spent with Vincenzo: him listening to her in the park, him standing up for her against Clara. They’d played cards together, drank happily together. He’d given her the most of his physical love he could offer, all for the sake of her.
“Because I’m this woman’s husband.”
He’d said it so matter-of-factly, that throwaway line, but she’d clung to it and bundled it up close to her heart, keeping it as warm as it made her feel.
She dunk one of her ice cubes in her drink. “I know you’re worried about me. It’s because you’ve seen me in abusive relationships and don’t want to see me going down that same path. Vincenzo is a very influential man with a wealth of fortune that gets him into trouble. But I think I’ve made it clear that I love him and want to stay with him for as long as he treats me well, which he has for many months. He asks me how I feel and changes his attitudes dependent on me, and we’ve both grown because of one another. So I don’t wish to justify this any more than I already have. I love him, and I want to be with him, and if you still think it’s a bad idea, I don’t know what else to tell you.”
Mitsuko’s eyebrows raised.
Laurence, who was looking off towards Dominic and Luis drinking, came back to their conversation and said, “Wow.”
“Indeed.” Mitsuko dropped her head into her hand and stared at her.
Sylvia stared back. She felt in her heart that she could persuade Laurence about this. He’d had suitors, one-night stands, and long-term “lovers,” although he didn’t like the term. To her knowledge, Mitsuko had been with no one. She wore a wedding ring, but she was sure she’d never actually been with anyone. Her heart was too full of friends. It didn’t have any more room.
“I’m sorry you don’t like him,” Sylvia said, trying a new approach. “If one of you had fallen in love with a gangster boy or gangster girl, I’d, too, have my reservations.”
Laurence looked away, to Vincenzo’s friends.
“But I’m happy now, I think, and I don’t want that taken away from me. I’ll fight for that ’till the end.”
Mitsuko sipped on her favorite drink of choice: milk. Her eyes never left Sylvia’s. “Let me ask you the most important question a girl like you needs to answer: If he proposed to you tomorrow, would you marry him? Would you spend the rest of your life like this, forever tied to him by the red thread of fate?”
Not even thinking over the answer, she said, “Even though it’s impossible, that the world will never allow it, even though our parents would never approve of it, yes. Indefinitely.”
Mitsuko sighed through her nose, defeated in her valiant efforts, then roared into a snarl and chugged her milk. “Then I want to meet him. I demand to.”
“You already have, sweetheart.”
“No. I want to meet him with you, with Laurence, with those two little thugs he’s always with that Laurence hasn’t taken his eyes off of. Yes, Laurence, I noticed. You’re not sly.”
“And add that grandmother into the mix, too. I want a full conference. Favorite food, favorite music, how many men he’s killed, how he feels about you when you’re in the room, when you’re out. If you’re marrying him, I need to know every bit of info I can get in case this goes south.”
“We might be able to do that. Oh.” She reached down into the front of her dress and pulled out two envelopes.
“Nice hickey, by the way,” Mitsuko said. “I saw that the second you came in.”
“Thank you.” She dispensed out the gifts. “These are from Vincenzo. He said they’re Halloween presents.”
“Is it laced with anything?” Mitsuko ripped hers open with her bayonet. Laurence used his painted nails.
“I’m not sure, but by the girth of the notes…”
Mitsuko took out ten one-dollar bills.
“It felt like cash.”
“What on Earth?” Laurence said, licking his finger to count each individual bill.
Mitsuko held her bills up to the light. “Is he paying us out to keep quiet?”
“I don’t believe so. He told me they were Halloween gifts. I don’t think he knows what the holiday means. I think this’s the first time he’s had companions to share it with.”
“Ugh, why’s he so insufferable?” Mitsuko folded up the envelope and stuffed it into one of her military pockets. “Where is he, anyway? I should thank him. Maybe he’ll forget that I slapped him.”
“He’s in Canada for the weekend on a business trip. He’ll be back Monday.”
“Is that why those two are here?” Laurence asked, gesturing to Dominic and Luis.
“Laurence, please,” Mitsuko said. “I can’t handle both of you like this.”
“What?” he asked.
“What’s wrong, dear?” Sylvia asked. “You’ve been spacing out. What’re you thinking about?”
“The better question is ‘who’,” Mitsuko corrected.
“No one,” he said.
Too curious, Sylvia turned in her stool and tried seeking out Laurence’s fixation.
Laurence physically took Sylvia’s face and positioned her back into their tight circle. “Please, spare me.”
“You wouldn’t know this because you’ve been off snogging with your dearest,” Mitsuko said, “but Laurence has been having a crisis of conscience.”
“No, I haven’t,” he defended. “Stop telling people that.”
“But you are.”
“Can someone please tell me what’s going on?” Sylvia asked.
“Nothing’s happening,” Laurence said. “Look, back when you and Vincenzo were here and we found out you were living together, I might’ve drunk too much. I thought it might’ve been funny to bring up someone on stage, you know, we do that often, and I happened to see Dominic.”
“And he reacted,” Mitsuko said.
“I saw that,” Sylvia said. “You slapped him.”
“I touched his rear end,” he said pointedly. “I forgot I even did it, but when I did, instead of being mad or disgusted with me, he was…”
“No, no,” he said. “He was not. Stop saying that. He was…well, embarrassed, obviously.”
“I’d be, too,” Sylvia said.
“Don’t say that. I’m trudging through enough guilt. So then, after the number, I went to change my shoes, and he came into the back with me. He was stuttering and fiddling with his handS. I didn’t even know he had that type of side to him. Finally, he asked me not to touch him again, which I won’t, of course. I promised, but the way he said it, it’s been on my mind. It’s like he wanted to say something more to me.”
“And now he’s pining,” Mitsuko said.
“I’m not!” he almost shouted, then hushed himself up by looking Dominic’s way. “He’s just odd. He’s never acted this way before.”
“So, basically, I’m struggling with a lot,” Mitsuko said. “Forget my shitty apartment complex upping my rent this month and my father’s birthday that’s coming up that I’m debating on writing to him about, this’s what I need to focus on. Two queers falling in love with monsters.”
“Not in love,” Laurence said. “Falling into curiosity. And they aren’t monsters, we just went through this. They’re normal men.”
“So do you like him?” Sylvia asked.
“What? No. This’s all I know about him: He’s quiet, a bit shy, and when we perform, he seems entranced by us. What’s there to work with? It’s like he’s…he’s…”
“He’s scared to open up,” Sylvia said. “It seems like he’s interested in you. Why not give it a shot and ask him?”
“Because he’s some scary gangster who’ll probably gut me like a trout if I tell him that I like him—”
“Aha!” Sylvia said. “So you do like him.”
He choked on his words. “Well…well, yes, okay, in a purely physical sense, I, someone who enjoys the company of men, may or may not find a tall, muscular, conventionally attractive man handsome. There. Happy?”
“Not really,” Mitsuko said.
“Not asking you. However, seeing as he’s a man who works for a gang that doesn’t hesitate to kill people—”
“A man who also works for a very tolerant and kind-hearted man who cares for us—”
“I simply must put these feelings aside and find another suitor to cater to my interests. I’ve done it plenty of times before, I’ll do it again. Plus, we don’t even know if he’s funny like me. I can’t risk that sort of humiliation now.”
Sylvia scrunched up her nose. She hated when he acted like this. “A woman shouldn’t waste her chances on love.”
“Contrary to what the men here think, I’m not a woman.”
“Oh, you know what I mean. You’ll never know unless you ask. Why don’t you go up and talk to him? You can apologize again and make it a conversation piece.”
Laurence was already shaking his head. “Off the table. It’s still too awkward. He’s this big man and I’m…” He gestured to himself. “This. And he seemed really upset about what I did, so I’m keeping my distance.”
“Let me help, then. I can talk to him for you.”
“Yes,” Mitsuko said.
“Mitsuko, not helping. Sylvia, no, please—” He went for her hand. He missed. “He doesn’t like people like us. He’ll only hate me more. Sylvia.”
“Alright,” she said, “I won’t say anything, I promise. I’ll just make sure he isn’t drinking himself rotten. He looks sad.”
“Because he’s being forced to spend his weekend at a pansy bar when he isn’t a pansy.”
Not believing him, Sylvia left to greet Dominic and Luis.
Which she never saw herself doing. She saw Vincenzo as family and thought he saw her friends as…acquaintances. But her with Dominic and Luis? Were they friends? If she and Vincenzo ever split up, would she find herself hanging out with them? Would she catch up on Luis’ growing child or Dominic’s…
She didn’t even know. His family? Was he close to them? Did he have a secret wife or child? Did he have any wants or goals?
She interrupted them mid-conversation. Luis was patting Dominic’s back while Dominic was drawing on loose-leaf paper. He hid whatever he was drawing when she came over. She caught swirls of dark circles that could’ve been a face.
“Hiya,” Luis said. “Like my tail? Ana said it was too frivolous, but how could I not? You look great.”
“Thank you. I didn’t mean to interrupt you. I was just wondering if everything was alright. I saw him sulking.”
Dominic slid his drink closer to him, away from her. On a folded napkin was the strawberry from his strawberry daiquiri.
“Because they’re too sweet,” she pointed out, remembering what he’d said about his favorite drink.
Luis read the mood at their table, then faked a smile. “So, uh, do we want a drink? Want me to buy you one? With your friends over there?”
Dominic rolled his eyes at “friends.”
“No, thank you,” she said. “It’s just that, over there, all of us were talking. It seems like there’s something wrong with Laurence.”
“Oh, no. What’s wrong?” Luis asked. “I know he’s kind of, well, you know, he kisses others and…” He ended that thought. “Something we can help with?”
“I don’t think so. I can’t recall what exactly happened, but it sounds like he did something to Dominic here that’s troubling him.”
Dominic finally came to attention. “Why’s he upset? He didn’t do anything.”
“Uh, you know, I’m sure it was nothing, nothing at all,” Luis said. “Don’t worry about it, all water under the bridge. Now, I don’t know about you two, but I’m starving—”
“What’s he been saying?” Dominic asked.
“He wished to apologize, but he doesn’t think you like him.” She lowered her voice. Was she breaking her promise? She wanted to build bridges. Loving, connecting bridges. “You know, he seems quite…Hurting your feelings wasn’t something he intended to do.” She tried looking at him properly. He was leaning away from her. “This’s just me asking now, as I’m his friend and I care for him.”
“But do you have any interest—any at all—in pursuing him?”
Since he was such a clamshell, she noticed the smallest of changes in his character. The moment she asked her question, fear bled through his bloodshot eyes. His chair squeaked back and his shoulders tightened. Luis lost his fake smile.
Maybe it was genetic, these Italian boys who needed to hide their feelings until you were blunt enough to confront it. Vincenzo did his best, but when a drink entered you, it broke you down until you either cried or hit something.
She backpedalled. She felt like she’d stepped on a landmine. “I don’t mean to insult you, if you consider such a question an insult. You don’t have to answer me. You can forget I even asked.”
The more she spoke, the more Dominic’s exterior cracked. He stood straight up, knees banging into the table and jumping Luis in the process. The stairs to upstairs were across the bar, too far away to run to, so he took the next closest route, through the back.
“Dom, wait!” Luis tripped over the chairs and chased him along Sylvia.
“Dominic, wait a moment,” she said in vain.
Laurence and Mitsuko watched them go, Mitsuko watching Sylvia, Laurence, hurt, watching Dominic.
“It’s okay,” she mouthed at them, and followed Dominic into the back room. He’d slammed the door behind him but forgot to lock it. Luis followed her in.
Dominic caught his breath at one of the vanity tables. A hand was curled tightly in his hair, pulling.
“Hey, Dom, what’s the problem?” Luis said lightly. “It’s okay. We can just leave. Everything’s fine.”
“No, it’s not!” For the first time since meeting him, Dominic looked more than obediently bored. He looked trapped by Sylvia’s words and was only sinking further.
He turned to Sylvia. “Who told you?”
“Nobody told me anything.”
“No, I saw you. You were talking to him right before you came over. Who said what?”
“Hey, you know, it’s not a big deal,” Luis said. “Let’s just get some fresh air and—” He touched his arm. Dominic twitched away.
“Dominic, listen,” Sylvia said. “I didn’t mean to make you upset. Laurence, Mitsuko, and I were talking about what happened that night. I know he likes you, or is at least interested in you. He never pursues anyone because he’s afraid of what they’ll think of him. I just wanted to ask on his behalf. If you’re uninterested, that’s fine. I’ll let him down and he’ll be just fine. I don’t understand why you’re acting this way.”
“You—” Dominic dug into his hair kept pulling, messing up the hair that always looked short of perfect. “Why’re you doing this?”
“Doing what? I just want you two to be happy—”
“How?” he snapped. “How on Earth can this make either of us happy and not totally fuck us over?”
Luis physically stepped between them. “Okay, this’s getting a little heated—”
Dominic walked around him. “I’m not like you or Vincenzo who has the luxury of coming here. I’m not allowed to be seen liking any of this.”
Whatever he was getting at, Sylvia said, “Okay. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. When people enter the Black Kitten, they usually want to express themselves in some way.” She reevaluated this man who she’d known for some time. “I didn’t know you were in hiding.”
He stepped back. “I-I’m not. I’m not hiding.”
“Yeah, he’s not,” Luis said, blinding reaching for his friend. “Dom, come on. Let’s leave.”
His breathing ramped up. “I know I spend too much time here, alright? I know I shouldn’t have done what I did up on stage. It was wrong, but you mentioning it to everyone is only going to make things worse.”
Sylvia backed up into the door. What was going on? Was Dominic truly someone like her or Laurence or Mitsuko? If so, why was he yelling at her about it?
She couldn’t imagine not living as her true self, but she knew its power. She knew that, aside from most Kitten patrons, people were disgusted by fairies and their magical hearts. Some people didn’t have the magic. Some people had too much of it and needed to cloak its brightness to save themselves. She’d let herself shine and got beaten for it.
“Okay,” she told him. “I won’t mention this to anyone, ever. I swear.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said dismissively. “Everyone in this God forsaken building’s going to know eventually, and then I’m done. Through. I’ll be dead by next week.” His neck muscles throbbed as he tried holding back his hate. “It’s how all you people act. You have your way with innocent men and then ruin their lives by blabbing about it to all your friends. It’s like a virus.”
“You, you people. You’re all so…” He sighed. “I’m not reliving this. I’m not going to be tainted by this lifestyle again.”
Luis, speechless, turned to Sylvia with an apology forming on his lips.
From being yelled at, Sylvia, before, would’ve cried. She would’ve curled up in a corner and apologized for speaking up when she wasn’t spoken to. Now, either from Vincenzo not being present or from her spending so much time with him, she didn’t back down. Her heart beat more from anger than humiliation.
She put her hands on her hips. “Now, see here.”
The two men looked up.
“Firstly, I do apologize for bringing this up so suddenly. I can see that you’re not comfortable with this topic and I will not bring it up again with you or with anyone else. However, I will not allow you to yell at me like this and insinuate that what I and many of my friends do is considered ‘tainted’ by your standards. That is unfair to everyone here—including you.”
At his inclusion, his fists clenched.
“So do not yell at me because I asked you a simple, unobstructive question, and if you need anyone to talk to about this, maybe don’t yell at one of the only women here who would be willing to listen to what you’re going through.”
“You—” He went to lean against a vanity table, but his hand slipped. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You’re right, she doesn’t,” Luis said. “Dom, breathe. Just breathe. You’re fine.”
“But I’m not,” he said. “She knows, he knows, they all—”
Before he finished, the door to the backstage opened. Mitsuko and Laurence had arrived. Mitsuko had her bayonet at her side. Laurence looked ready to cry.
With a moment of silence, Dominic cursed and stormed out of the Kitten through the back door leading to the outside. He took five large steps, arms pumping, and slipped through the door and disappeared into the alley.
“Dom, wait!” Luis called out.
Laurence pushed back the curtain and watched him go. He opened his mouth to call for him, too, but held back and instead went to Sylvia. “What did you say to him?”
Luis opened the door seconds after Dominic closed it, but by the sound of a car starting up and tired squeaking against the pavement, it sounded like he’d lost his chance to save his friend. He moaned and kicked his leg like a child. “Dang it!”
“What is going on?” Laurence asked. “What did he say, Sylvia? You said you weren’t going to intrude.”
“I didn’t…” Her heart swelled in her throat. “I didn’t mean to hurt him. I just wanted both of you to be happy.”
“But he can’t,” Luis said. “I, uh, gotta go get him. I have to make sure he’s safe. When he gets like this, he gets bad.”
“O-okay,” she said. “You can.”
“…And I might not come back tonight,” he said.
“Oh.” With her ride tethered to him, she opened her vanity table and fished out her purse. “Is that okay? Mitsuko? Laurence?”
“Go where you have to go,” Mitsuko said, keeping her arms crossed, looking perturbed.
Laurence, hand bunching up the parted curtain, kept his eyes on the closed door.
They left after Sylvia apologized to Bobbie for ditching partway through her shift. He’d wanted an explanation. She’d pointed to Luis furiously rubbing off his whiskers with a cup of water.
She wasn’t drunk enough to handle these feelings Dominic had given her. She didn’t know what she’d done or how she should’ve handled herself. All she saw was Dominic’s face and how hateful he looked at her. Most people looked at her like that for how she dressed and acted. Not many hated her for what she said and thought.
And she didn’t know. She didn’t know that Dominic was in hiding. Who would’ve? To hate this part of himself so much. Why go to a pansy bar so often when you secretly despised them for who they kissed? Why yell at her for asking?
She got into Luis’ car with these questions. Who was she to demand such information from a man she didn’t even know that well? There was a good chance they’d never be friends, especially after this, so she didn’t have to worry about it so much.
After buckling herself in, Sylvia leaned into the car seat, sniffled, then sobbed into the open air.
“Oh, no, baby, don’t do that now.” Luis gave her his handkerchief. “Come on. It’s nothing bad.”
“But it is,” she cried. “I made him so angry. I shouldn’t have asked. It was so rude of me.”
“No, no.” He started the car and drove off. “Dominic, he’s…He’s a turbulent guy, he is. Good one day, a disaster the next. The last few weeks have been hard for him. I guess I can fill you in, seeing as he basically told you, but he’s, you know, he’s funny like that.”
“So you’ve known?”
“Yeah.” He scratched his nose. “Feels weird finally bringing it up, but about two months after knowing him, we were driving into Manhattan and he told me. Told me he never told anyone before, but he trusted me to never speak a word about it to anyone. And by God, I kept that promise for three whole years. Never even told my wife about it.
“But this’s important,” he stressed. “Vincenzo can’t know. Ever. Nobody can. He was right. Us guys can’t be funny like how Vincenzo is with you. He’s the boss’ favorite, so he’s a little untouchable when it comes to certain requirements, but Dominic’s lower on the totem pole. He has to keep what he likes tight-lipped, otherwise he might go missing or get hurt. We can’t have that happening to our guy.”
“I understand.” She wiped her eyes. “I’m a terrible person.”
“No, don’t go off saying that. You sound just like him when he gets into his moods. You were right. He shouldn’t have blown up on you. It was a question that he could’ve said no to and that would’ve been that. But since that whole fiasco with Laurence, he’s been a little high-strung. He thinks that everyone knows because he comes here so often with Vincenzo.”
“But I don’t understand. Does he like Laurence? Does he not? Is it because of the color of his skin, or the bar? Us?”
“It’s because of everything,” he said tiredly. “I can’t say any more out of respect for him, but you’re a smart girl. You know that he wouldn’t be getting this emotional over a man he hated.”
Knowing that, she felt even worse. He’d wanted to be with Laurence, for so long, but he was not only expected to sway from it, he was expected to denounce the very man he was. To be safe.
Sylvia took off her shoes and hid her hot, wet face in her knees. She needed to take baby steps in order to stand up for herself, but, like always, it backfired on her and left her hating herself even more.
She wondered if Dominic felt the same way.