Chapter 17: Experimenting

Sylvia considered cooping herself up in Vincenzo’s room until the next year. 1928, a good, even year to come back to the world of the living.

Well, she was living. If Vincenzo begged, she took baths. She cleaned herself. She ate under Nonna’s orders and took trips to New York Bay with her friends. And she stopped crying whenever she saw the dark curtains overshadowing Dominic’s home.

From what Vincenzo had told her, Dominic had left his home a week after Halloween. He met up with Luis on occasion and worked on simple missions Campo assigned him to before hiding away in his cave again. Sylvia wouldn’t have known. She wouldn’t ask—or call, God forbid—and ruin even more of his fragile heart.

She couldn’t take the guilt any longer. How much of his life had she shattered? These men with their appearances and their masculinity. He hadn’t been killed like he’d thought, but if his attraction slipped out to Hannigan, she’d happily die along with him in regret.

This lifestyle was easier to live with at the Black Kitten. Not many wealthy people openly flaunted it in public. If they did, they disguised themselves or pretended they knew nothing about sex. Dominic, Luis, Vincenzo, they had so much to lose. She admired Vincenzo’s determination to keep this up with her, but Dominic, did he have to fortitude to uphold such a beautiful burden?

Sylvia sighed for the third time that hour.

Mitsuko, who was eating lunch with her in the Kitten’s backroom, said, “Why not apologize to him if you’re so broken up about it?”

“Because he hasn’t come here in a month. He didn’t come to Thanksgiving, Mitsuko. He celebrated it alone. I can’t phone him or knock on his door to apologize now. He hates me, it’s final.”

Mitsuko crossed her legs so she had more lap on which to eat her sandwich. “Seems to me he wants to be upset.”

“Don’t say that. Nobody wishes to be unhappy. I just didn’t know he was hiding it, you understand, or that he was even interested in the first place.”

“So why’re you so distraught? You did nothing wrong.”

“Yes, I did. I shouldn’t have confronted him about it. It wasn’t my place.”

“And it wasn’t his place to snap at you and make you feel like the devil for asking him a question. Which turned out to be right, by the way, and has no animosity towards him. If he doesn’t want to talk about it, then good, and if he didn’t want us knowing, fine. But if you’re an unmarried man who constantly hangs out at a pansy bar, don’t be surprised when pansies start wondering if they could pursue you. Seems like he needs someone to push him into the pool.”

Sylvia lapped up the crumbs of her sandwich. “I don’t want to push anyone into any pool. They should jump in themselves. It’ll be less upsetting that way.”

“Guess it works for different people.” She napkined her lips. “How about this: About twenty minutes ago, Vincenzo came in.”

“What?” She didn’t know he was coming in today. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because I wanted you to eat something. I have both you and Laurence to worry about and I can’t have you skipping meals and him thinking that pursuing Dominic is actually a good idea.”

She threw away her trash. “I’m going to talk to Vincenzo about this. Thank you for listening.”

“Good luck, soldier.”

Since she’d left to eat dinner, the Black Kitten had thinned out considerably. It was a Wednesday, and it’d snowed the night prior, so not many brave souls wanted to risk walking or driving in the streets. Only a handful of regulars were passed out in their usual tables, candles half extinguished, plates fully devoured.

And only two people were at the bar: Luis and, by some means aiming to make Sylvia feel more terrible than ever, Dominic. They were both on their second or third glass. Their cheeks were reddened a wasted pink, alcohol circling them like an altar.

Unable to make eye contact with them, Sylvia beelined for Vincenzo’s booth. A month of silence just for him to come back. Was everything fine? Was it worse?

Vincenzo instantly made space for her. “Evening.”

“Evening. Did you know Dominic’s there?”

“I did. Luis reached out to him and somewhat forced him and I to come out as a sort of friendly alliance. This was supposed to be a fun night, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

“Oh, dear.” She found his hand underneath the table and held it. “Tell him to leave. He won’t unless you order him. He shouldn’t be here if he doesn’t want to be.”

“Luis said he didn’t want him decaying in his home this winter, but I don’t think that drinking would make things any better.”

“What kind of drunk is he?”

“Emotional.”

“Oh, dear.” She motioned to drink his drink.

He obliged. “Oh, dear indeed.” He stared across the bar to his friends. “Sylvia, can I ask you a question?”

Her nervous heart fluttered.

“Is Dominic…a pansy?”

“No.”

He looked at her.

“He’s not,” she pressed. “I’d know, and he isn’t.”

He dropped his head in his hand, watching her.

She kept her face straight, but she felt her lips trembling with how hard she was pushing it.

“That’s what his secret is, isn’t it?” he asked. “It’s why he’s in hiding. It’s why he clams up whenever he’s here.”

“It’s not.”

“You don’t have to lie to me. I know better than most not to take that information lightly.”

“But you mustn’t say anything, and he mustn’t know I told—”

“You didn’t tell me, so you don’t have to worry.” He slouched. “It took some time to figure that out, huh? To say that I never knew. I’m considered his…accomplice.”

“Friend.”

He nodded at the right word. “And nothing. Never knew anything.”

“He’s suffering.”

“We have to help him. I’ve always wondered who these men were to me. They work for me, and I value their work ethic, but when I see him so visibly broken up about this, it hit me. They’re my friends. I want to see them happy. And I want to give Dominic the chance that so many of us don’t get.” He went for something in his pocket. “May I show you something?”

“You may.”

He took out a piece of paper and unfolded it on the table. On it, he’d written, crossed out, and arrowed a whole letter of information. She knew his handwriting was short of atrocious, messily slanted and so smashed together, but she wondered what language he’d written this in.

“I set aside some time to really think over the possibility of their relationship, of Dominic’s and Laurence’s. Dominic is a strong man, very forceful, a real man’s man. But he’s very shy. He doesn’t speak unless spoken to, even when he’s not working. He’s quiet, he’s subservient. Laurence is the exact opposite of that. He’s determined and passionate. He speaks his mind and doesn’t let anybody tell him otherwise. I feel like you and I are quite similar. We’re not obtrusive, we mind our own business. But opposites attract, do they not?”

She nodded, though she was trying to figure out where on his paper he was reading this from.

“I don’t think Dominic’s strong enough to bring this up with Laurence, and I believe Laurence is too headstrong to make the first move, but if we were to, say, give them a push…”

“You’re planning on playing cupid with your and my friend?”

“…Yes.”

She gave one last try to read through his notes, then smiled. “You’re funny.”

“Is that a compliment?”

“I’d hope so.”

“Good. I spent a few days on this. It’s been helping me pigeonhole talking to Campo about those break-ins that happened last month.”

“You still haven’t told him?”

He added an arrow into his notes. “Bit of a hypocrite, am I not? I think Dominic should love who he loves, yet I can’t talk to my own boss about a somewhat serious issue.”

“It’s a threat on our lives.”

“I know. I plan to tell him at the start of December.”

“I wonder if Dominic will ever be comfortable enough to tell us. Properly, not in the terrible way I did.”

“I don’t know.” From his pocket, he took out a packet of white powder she knew too well. “Wanna calm down?”

She tipped her glass at the packet. “Absolutely.”

 

 

An hour passed and neither side of the bar met up. Luis and Dominic drank drinks and whispered secrets only they knew. Laurence, finally in his stage clothes, sang and performed for his patrons. Mitsuko did as well, but her spark was dimmer; she didn’t flail or jump off the stage to make the girls swoon.

Sylvia, after shaming herself for a month, drank happily. She shared Campari and vodka cocktails with Vincenzo and mixed their final sips with cocaine. She preferred alcohol, obviously, but if given the choice, she had no qualms with mixing different levels of rude enjoyment to make a wondrous night of fun.

With every glass of Campari, Vincenzo built upon his notes. Not happy with just talking about Dominic’s love life, they drew upon his past, his future both with and without Laurence. They made a life for Mitsuko and her fictitious wife, for Luis and his wife. When they ran out of space, they used napkins.

“Mitsuko would have a dog,” Vincenzo said. “I won’t argue this.”

“She wouldn’t have any animal to begin with.”

“Yes, she would. She’d love dogs. A husky.”

“Husky?”

“Or a, what’s the word, a St. Bernard. She’d have that.”

“No. I refuse that.”

“Oh, please—” He stumbled out of his seat, then took his half-finished glass. “I’m gonna ask her. Where is she?”

“Dancing.”

Dancing. Her dancing is so…provocative, don’t you think?”

“That’s what she goes for.”

“I can…I can do th…” He held his head, eyes going in two different directions.

Taking his hand, Sylvia helped lead him out of their booth and onto the main floor. She didn’t quite know who was playing at the moment. Laurence, right? Was she supposed to be playing tonight? She stopped at an empty table to think about it. Vincenzo kept going, towards the stage.

Laurence twirled his yellow dress and earned a soft clap from the audience. He was the perfect performer. Even while he was going through this emotional time with Dominic, he kept his energy up. He always smiled. He danced and sung for hours and never complained because he liked it. Sometimes Sylvia couldn’t play piano on account of multiple internal problems. But Laurence outshone himself every night and his fans ate it up beautifully.

Sylvia craned her neck to see if Dominic was enjoying the show.

He had his back to them, head on the table.

Once Laurence started disrobing, however, Dominic turned around. Jaw dropped, shoulders drooped, he slipped off his stool and watched his sultry performance from the floor. Luis joined him, laughing.

All this time, this boy was interested in love. Maybe before Sylvia had gotten with Vincenzo. Six months? Longer? When neither of them thought the other cared for them. It burned her heart. It must’ve destroyed his.

Finishing up her fourth glass with an ugly burp, Sylvia got up and went to him.

The Black Kitten quieted down. Confused whispers broke out, each one catching her dizzying attention.

A new singer introduced themselves. Their steps were uncoordinated like they were plodding through water to get there. They got there, though, and held the microphone with both hands. Laurence backed off to give them room. Mitsuko came out from the back room at the sudden stop.

Had Sylvia taken more than cocaine? Surely this wasn’t Vincenzo, standing tall, or tilted, rather, at the microphone. Centered with the lights on him, he looked like he belonged. With the performers. With them.

He adjusted the microphone to his height, then, jumping into the song’s chorus, he sang.

Sylvia became teary-eyed. It was mostly from the drink, but she lost her drunk self to his lyrics. She’d heard this voice at Campo’s party, but this voice, it had a mission. It had no filter, no volume control. He held his heart during the choruses and toured the microphone cord with him during the verses. He hit notes neither Laurence nor Mitsuko could ever hit.

And he smiled throughout it all.

Smiling just as blissfully, Sylvia bobbed her head to his voice. What had she meant to do today? It felt important.

Shrugging it off, she skipped up the steps and met with her talented love.

Vincenzo clapped at her arrival. She knew the song he was singing now—“Baby Face” by Jan Garber. It begged for a piano accompaniment, so she gave it to him, heightening his great piece into a perfect one.

Her fingers danced over the keys like an uncontained child. Her knees bopped together and she almost sang along before she forgot the lyrics. At one powerful chorus, Vincenzo lay across the body of the piano as if it were a bed and kicked his legs. Sylvia licked her lips at him, and he strolled over and sang behind her, hips grinding into her lower back.

The momentum made her moan with his vibrato. He sang to his baby, his sweet baby, the one sent him to Heaven every time he saw her. Sylvia hoped it was about her. It could’ve been about his cat. Or his Nonna.

After the song ended, Vincenzo spun her around the mic. Their feet were too silly to dance, but that didn’t stop them. Legs were kicked, dresses were raised, and kisses were given in front of everyone. The crowd certainly didn’t mind; Sylvia guessed they weren’t cheering for the song.

She finally exited the stage after Vincenzo took off his shoes and got to humping her piano like a cat in heat. She needed a break, but he didn’t. He sang more songs from his never-ending inventory. Some lyrics were changed to Italian mid-chorus. Luis sang along where he could.

Sylvia let herself swoon until a sinking feeling hit her. She’d been having so much fun. What had her brain wanted her to remember?

She covered her mouth. Dominic. Her apology. How had she forgotten about that? She’d only drunk two bottles, right?

Zigzagging between the tables, Sylvia returned to where she last saw Dominic.

He was gone. He wasn’t on the floor like how Luis was, cuddling his and Dominic’s shared beverages, but Dominic had vanished.

She scrunched her eyes. Vincenzo broke off into another song, which almost stole her attention, but she remained focused and scoured the booths. She interrupted a kissing couple, kissing people kissing multiple people. She excused herself and carried on.

Then, down near the bathrooms, she found him. No drinks. No glasses. Not even a plate of bread to sober him up.

But he did have company with him. He had Laurence.

She ducked into a close by booth. Laurence had taken off his wig and shoes, letting his natural hair breathe and resting his sore feet. He had them tucked underneath his rump as he leaned closely into Dominic. They must’ve been talking for some time. The candle on their table was half out.

“That’s awful, what you lived through,” she heard Laurence say, quietly.

“It ruined me,” Dominic said even quieter. “It’s why I hate this type of stuff now. It’s why I can’t open up to anyone, ever. It’ll kill me.”

“But you’re not ruined. You’re still here and doing fine.”

“But it’s walking on eggshells. It’s traveling eighty miles to New Haven for a quick time just to drive back home feeling humiliated that you’ve stooped so low. It’s hating every second you’re alive in hopes of magically changing yourself into being normal. I don’t want to live like that any longer.”

“You don’t have to here.”

“But I told you, I can’t—”

“I meant here, with me,” Laurence said. “You don’t have to hide anything from me.” He touched Dominic’s thigh. “I can be here for you.”

Dominic pressed his half-empty glass to his lips. Sylvia watched on. Some people didn’t like being pushed into pools. He looked like he was on the edge.

Laurence leaned in cautiously, giving him time to back out if he wanted. They were at a circle booth. If either of them desired, both of them had a way out.

Dominic looked down at Laurence’s lips. She knew he was looking for a way out. To not give in to what his heart had been groveling for. To not just to be in love with a person, but to safely “be” with them without apologizing for how they were. She’d found that safety with Vincenzo and hoped every little girl and boy like her could one day discover that type of security in their life.

Melting under the weight of Laurence, Dominic sighed, wrapped his limp arms around him, and let himself be carefully kissed.

Sylvia teared up again. What an emotional drunk the two of them were. And all of this because of her.

This sad scene before her. This was her fault. He must’ve hated her for pressuring him into this. What a terrible, bad friend she was.

Pulling on her dress, Sylvia broke her very secret hiding space and walked up to them. “Dominic.”

They pulled apart. Dominic’s lips were smeared with burgundy.

“I’m sorry I did this to you. I shouldn’t have asked you such a personal question. You have the right to keep this part of you a secret so nobody ever knows.”

Dominic and Laurence looked at each other, then back at Sylvia.

“I hope everything works out in the end for you. I do very much love you and support your needs to keep secret about this.” She took in Laurence’s hand slowly wringing back into Dominic’s hair. “Less so than Laurence, it seems.”

Dominic sucked in his lips. “Thank you,” he said, “and I forgive you.”

“He does,” Laurence promised. “Sylvia, darling, uh, go to Mitsuko and ask her for help. I think she has something for you to do.”

“Alright.” Feeling herself tipping, Sylvia collapsed into a nearby booth. Knowing she finally made amends with him, she kicked up her feet and let herself drift to Vincenzo’s sweet lullaby. Thank goodness he didn’t loathe her anymore. Maybe she’d get to sleep tonight. She wondered why he was talking with Laurence. She thought they disliked one another.

Before she lost herself in dreams, she heard the current jazz song slip into an instrumental piece. Someone fiddled with the mic, and Vincenzo said proudly, “You’re all invited to my Christmas party! All of you, at my Nonna’s. She makes the best cod.”

Had Christmas come so soon? She’d lost track of the time.

It’d be her first Christmas with a lover.

She couldn’t wait for it to pass.

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