Picking out their Christmas tree from their local fire station was almost as perfect as he’d imagined. There was snow on the ground, but it wasn’t snowing, so driving wasn’t as death-defying as normal. And the tree itself, freshly cut from the Adirondacks with a striking scent that sent him to his very first Christmas of making chocolate chip cookies and homemade Christmas ornaments with Nonna. And he’d only vaguely threatened a police officer to give him a bigger discount than advertised.
It was just…Sylvia.
He hated how he was. Something he must’ve said or done had tripped her back into her darkness. He did his best to lift her up—he even gave her the final say on which tree they should get—but every attempt seemed to make her bluer. Her midday naps became morning, afternoon, and evening naps. She stopped eating meals and turned to nibbling throughout the day. His mother, she had these mood swings during the holiday. Cooped up in her home, his father not coming home until the morning, she was left alone with ten-year-old Vincenzo, staring at her lukewarm cup of tea in silence.
When he caught Sylvia doing the same thing, sitting in the lounge by herself with her uneaten plate of crackers, he knew he had to act.
First, he played music that reminded him of Christmas. He draped warm quilts around her that his Nonna had knitted herself, he made her hot cocoa with more marshmallows in it than cocoa.
She shrugged off the quilt and drank two sips of her drink before putting it away.
He tried being spontaneous. When he had the music playing, he danced in the kitchen and even shook his rear to the beat. Whenever Sylvia entered the room, he, face flushed, took her close and danced around her, trying to relight her smile.
She gave him a confused, slightly amused smile, then went along with her day without mentioning it again.
After four days of silent begging, Vincenzo laid down his final card.
He ambushed her after her second bath. They’d become longer and made his room smell of freshly cut flowers. She was in his recliner now, wearing pink slippers and a matching bathrobe. Mezzanotte was even sitting with her, albeit on top of the recliner instead of in her lap. He was glad they were growing closer.
“I just finished in the tub,” she explained.
“Hm,” he hummed, and came to her.
After losing her personal bubble, she finally smiled. “Hi?”
He smiled back as he seductively straddled her.
She tightened underneath him. “What’s this?”
“Hm?” He nipped her ear.
She whimpered into his and tried parting her legs.
He learned from her lessons and kissed, nipped, and licked her like a hungry lover. Their groins was touching. Heat was radiating between them and the mouths. He used the most of his body to please her, though he always preferred a good handhold to this. His libido was almost dry. Hers was probably overflowing.
He pulled back and ran a hand through her thick hair. “Why’re you so sad? What can I fix for you?”
“Oh. Nothing. I’m fine. It’ll pass.”
He pulled down her bathrobe and outlined her collarbone with his tongue.
She moaned. “W-what about you? You’ve never…You’re not like this.”
“Do you want me to stop?”
“Not at all, I just want a reason for this new man I’m seeing.”
He smiled. “I suppose at certain times of the month, I want to indulge you with me. And if anything’s bothering you and this’s the only way to get you to open up…” He bit her neck. “I suppose I don’t have a choice, do I?”
She dropped her arm over her eyes. “I don’t want you to be mad at me.”
He rolled his eyes. “Nothing you’ll say will ever make me mad—”
“I hate Christmas.”
He lifted his head.
“I don’t have pleasant memories of it. Clara would yell at me and my father passed away during the winter, and when I was without a home, it was especially hard on me. So I can’t be as happy as you are, and that makes me sad.”
His shoulders sagged, the thought crushing him and the joy that’d been coursing through him all week. Many of his Christmases had their problems—fights, political disagreements. The first time he came home wearing boy clothes was during Christmas Eve. He’d been beaten nearly to death by his father while his mother watched. He’d almost gone to the hospital when his Nonna, who’d been disconnected from the violence through a locked door, crashed her way through and defended Vincenzo with her life.
She hadn’t understood why he’d done it, but by Christmas day, his father gone after being too fed up with his actions, she was calling him “Vincenzo” and correcting herself. Meanwhile, his mother was upset that he’d upset his father and quietly argued with him.
That’s when he started seeing his Nonna as someone less than his grandmother and more like his second mother who accepted every state of him.
He tucked Sylvia’s hair behind her ear. “You don’t have to decorate anymore.”
“I don’t mind it…” She pursed her lips. “That’s a lie. I wish I liked it, but I don’t. I want my memories switched because I know that I’d like it if Clara hadn’t ruined everything.”
“Shh.” He pecked her lips, rocking the recliner. Mezzanotte, having enough, jumped off.
“I’m too sad a girl,” Sylvia said.
“As if that would dissuade me from you,” he said, “though, if you want your memories changed, I think I can try and help you.”
“It’s a fantasy.”
“I disagree. I thought I’d never let myself love anyone, yet here I am, alive at twenty-three, and I’ve never been happier.”
Sylvia covered her mouth with the tips of her fingers. “You charm me so.”
“So, let’s make new Christmas memories, together. We’ll make a Christmas that that befouled woman can’t touch. I promise.”
“How should we go about that?”
“I have some ideas.” He went to get up, but Sylvia quickly locked on to his wrists, keeping him on her.
“Stay here,” she said, “if you want to finish what you started.”
He settled back into place with a smirk. “I guess I’m not one to leave things half-finished.” He kissed her again. “Disrobe, please.”
It took a few phone calls and some persuasion with Mitsuko, but Vincenzo finally found a day in which all of their friends were free.
Granted, he did have partial control of how busy Dominic and Luis were. The Black Kitten was flexible with its performer’s schedule, too, so in two days of persuasive planning, his plan to Manhattan was set.
Mitsuko had said that she and Laurence would come in her car from Harlem and that they’d meet him in Manhattan. He’d tried to give her direction to meet them at The Macy’s company store on 34th Street, but she had no idea where that was.
“I don’t go into Manhattan for Christmas. I’m not like that.”
What fools they were. They had so much to learn.
“Is it fun?” Sylvia asked as he drove. “Christmas in Manhattan?”
Vincenzo was in the car with Luis, his baby Sophie, and Dominic, so he didn’t freak out or groan as loudly as he would’ve liked. It was probably best; he didn’t want to make her feel stupid for not knowing about a holiday tradition his family loved.
He loved. His father tolerated. His mother went along with anything that was spoken. Nonna had been the one to introduce him to the tradition. He and she shared the Christmas spirit in his parent’s stead.
“It is, very,” he said, containing himself.
“Oh, it is, ma’am!” Luis said, keeping up his excitement. “Oh, the trees are decorated all Christmas-like. Everyone’s selling little trinkets on the streets, and when you shop, it’s phenomenal. There’s so much to buy, or barter, if you know your way around a deal.”
“You have to be there to experience it,” Vincenzo summarized.
“What’s your favorite, sir?” Luis asked.
“I couldn’t pick a favorite,” he said, “but the chocolate stores are nice.”
“Really? Well, I guess we know what to get you for Christmas.”
“That, I wouldn’t mind.”
“We’re here to buy presents, right?” Sylvia asked.
“It’s tradition. Every year, Nonna and I go down to Fifth Avenue and buy our Christmas presents for the year. Since my, uh, circle has grown this year, I thought it’d be fitting for all of us to go in together and buy our presents.”
Sylvia fished out her purse and played with the beads lining the edge. “I’m not sure if I have a lot to buy fancy presents for everyone.”
“Oh, Sylvia, don’t worry about that.” Vincenzo reached over from the driver’s side and pushed her purse down. “I’ll give you all the spending money you need.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course. I do it with my Nonna, though she insists I shouldn’t.”
“Perks of being with Vincenzo,” Luis said. “I have to get Ana a new purse, and my mother a new perfume she likes. I have the name written down somewhere. Maybe I’ll get something for you, my baby girlie.” He nuzzled Sophie. “Vincenzo, what do you want?”
“You always say that. Sylvia?”
“Anything’s fine, but please, don’t buy me anything expensive. I mean it.”
“I can manage that. Dominic, do you want anything…?”
From the mirror, Vincenzo watched Dominic make no attempt to look at any of them. Since taking off, he hadn’t stopped staring out the window, a hand covering his mouth.
“Ah,” Luis said. “Well, uh, I’ll surprise you, too. Get you…a new hat.”
He used his hat to cover more of his face.
Vincenzo scowled. Why had he come if he wasn’t interested in hanging out with them in the first place? He’d spent days orchestrating this.
He kept his feelings to himself. He knew this was better than him staying cooped up in his home all winter. He just needed to find a way to make everyone happily comfortable again.
Before turning onto the street, his heart leapt with childish glee. The streets were aglow with bright bulbs and decorated with garland and oversized Christmas ornaments. The smell of chestnuts and pine sprinkled the air like glitter, and people were ringing bells through a cacophony of honking horns and neighing horses.
He parked as close as he could without getting an earful from an officer. The snow had melted into the dirt, but it wasn’t messy enough for him to slip or for Sylvia to dirty her coat.
She was wearing a lovely coat. A light beige trenchcoat with black heels and darker stockings than what she normally wore. Once Vincenzo had seen her dressed for the day, he’d secretly redressed himself to match her. One day he’d wear lighter colors in public, donning his confidence the way Sylvia did whenever she left the house dressed how she liked.
After helping her out of the car, Vincenzo took a frigid breath of air and held her mittened hand.
“How magical,” she awed.
“Well, it’s your new Christmas memory,” he said. “It should be perfect. Now, where do you want to go first? What do you want to see?”
“I haven’t a clue where to start. Let’s walk and see.”
They broke into the main drag where horses were pulling carriages and families in winter coats tried crossing the congested streets. On the sidewalk, men in red suits sold Christmas cards for five cents and small toys for fifty. Luis sprinted there first and let Sophie choose her favorites.
Vincenzo watched Sylvia for the same sparkle in her brown eyes. She kept her head up as she admired the luminescent light posts and the growing city before her. Santas asking for donations. Children with their faces pressed against the glass of fake snow and presents held delicately in little elves’ hands. He couldn’t wait to show her the candy stores and fashion streets, to let her pick out anything she desired (within her confined budget). Perhaps she’d find solace at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Maybe he’d take her to Park Ave and let her buy whatever she wanted. Honestly, he’d take her anywhere if she only asked.
They all turned.
Mitsuko, dressed as manly as she dressed at the Kitten, and Laurence, obviously dressed as a man yet still owning his feminine charms, came up to them. They were quite a pair, coming at them with so much determination and confidence. People parted for them like they were off to somewhere important.
Sylvia met them halfway. “I’m glad you made it,” she said, hugging them both.
“I needed to finish Christmas shopping,” Mitsuko said, and nodded to Vincenzo and his friends. Laurence waved. Luis waved back.
Dominic looked at his reflection in the storefronts.
“G-glad to see you lot out of that bar,” Luis said, quickly filling the silence. “Now I can see you properly instead of squinting.”
“Don’t look too closely, I have a migraine from traversing down here,” Mitsuko said. “Laurence was persistently adamant about telling me where to go.”
“I come down here often, so I know where to go,” he said.
“You come here often?” Vincenzo asked. “For Christmas?”
“Oh, yeah. Every year. I basically grew up here before moving up to Harlem. Mitsuko had us on a path that would’ve led us to Grand Central.”
“I was avoiding traffic. It’s different to come from Brooklyn than it is to come up from—” She rolled her eyes with a smile as Laurence elbowed her. “Anyway, that aside, hello. Where are we going?”
“Let’s stop by this chocolate store first,” Vincenzo said, gesturing to a small store bundled between two larger ones. “I want to show it to Sylvia. They’re fine with all types of people, too, so none of us need to worry.”
“Then lead the way.”
The store itself was layered in pounds and pounds of chocolate. Lining the walls, in barrels for five cents a bar. At the front counter was every assortment of chocolate or piece of candy you could ask for: Hershey, Lindt, Turkish Delight. Tootsie Rolls in logs and in a pick-and-choose box where you can have five pieces for ten cents.
Vincenzo had the best memories of this place. He’d steal as many as his pockets could carry; it was the only “good reason” to wear dresses with pockets, his father had thought. He laughed when Vincenzo showed him how much he could leave with and patted his back with pride. His mother never approved, but she never stopped them from stealing.
Now, Vincenzo boasted about his wealth. He wanted to give his friends all the chocolate in the world to see them smile and know that they appreciated him for all that he’d worked for. He asked which candies Luis favored, which flavor of chocolate bar Laurence liked the most. With their backs turned, he then scooped up five bundles of each and bought them merrily.
“What’re you doing?” Laurence would ask.
“Stocking stuffers,” he’d explain, and asked the shop owner for two of the Hershey bars Dominic was eyeing.
“I better get some, too,” Mitsuko said. “You still owe me.”
“I didn’t peg you as someone who liked chocolate.”
“I’m a human being, you oaf.”
“Well, what do you want, then?”
“This.” She pointed to a brand known for their spicy aftertaste. He bought three as she tore open the packaging with her teeth.
“Can I buy you anything?” he then asked Sylvia.
She looked through the counter glass, then pointed to one almond Hershey bar. “If this isn’t too much.”
He couldn’t be more thrilled to gift her that ruby bar.
They hit up a record store next. This store was much larger and gave each of them a wider range to explore by themselves. Sylvia even went off by herself and roamed through the older records. Mitsuko checked out the prices of the phonographs in the front—Vincenzo recorded that for later—and Luis stayed outside to check out a deal on roasted chestnuts.
Dominic stayed close, but whenever he and Laurence drifted into the same aisle, Dominic decided that he needed to find something across the store, away from the man he’d kissed weeks ago.
At what was likely the Louis Armstrong aisle, Vincenzo met up with Laurence. They studied the same records, reading which songs were on certain albums. Soon they were in a tight corner, elbows almost touching.
When Vincenzo tried to read over which records Laurence liked, Laurence sighed and put it away. “What am I doing wrong?”
He looked up. He was used to Sylvia’s height, but Laurence had to be six foot three, maybe taller.
“I don’t know how to go about talking to him anymore,” Laurence confided. “I called him, and we talked for a bit before I asked him about what he thought about us, and he ended the call. I just wish I could understand him. I mean, which one does he like best? Armstrong? Hines? Ellington?”
Vincenzo examined the records before looking over and examining the man who had their back to them. He had his arms crossed, hands holding his elbows tight to his person.
“I…don’t know,” Vincenzo whispered. “He’s a quiet fellow, and I never knew about his, uhm, wishes, so I don’t know how he works internally.”
“I wish I could—” He raised his hands in front of him and squeezed. “Break him out of that damn shell he’s in and throttle him. Certainly, he has his reasons for keeping it to himself, but that’s not how this works. He’s a homosexual, just like I am, just like Mitsuko is.”
Vincenzo made sure nobody was listening to them.
“It’s not right for people like us to let our flames dim in the presence of others who want to be there for them. I mean, how did you deal with it? Coming out and saying how you really felt about who you were?”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean how you’re like Sylvia, and how you—”
He didn’t know if he had any more to say, but he didn’t leave it to chance. Gripping his arm, Vincenzo jerked him down and held him until he almost broke through his jacket into his skin.
“Ow,” he said, but softly still, and the realization he’d said something wrong that would’ve cost a normal person their life dawned over him.
Vincenzo’s world shifted. His feet were off-centered, turning his stomach from resting in his middle to being shoved up into his throat. His mind tried to divert him to different paths. “He really meant this.” He truly meant that.” That he hadn’t insinuated that the secret he’d been keeping was so easily obtainable, a man he hadn’t even spoken to directly before had figured it out. Or someone had squealed. Someone was telling his friends, and soon he’d be seen as a liar that…
“Wait.” Laurence crouched down and took his hand. Vincenzo was so rigid, he couldn’t pull back. “Was that…Did you not…?” He looked to Sylvia, a mile away at the counters. “Does she not know?”
When Vincenzo didn’t answer, Laurence gawked at him and tried freeing his arm. “Sylvia doesn’t know? Are you serious?”
Vincenzo couldn’t take these whispers any longer and walked him out of the store. To make sure he didn’t bump into Luis, he brought him all the way down the street. The contrast of the cold air from the warm heat in the stores made him shiver. He wanted to think that’s what he was shivering from.
He brought him to a lawn that not many people were in. He hid them behind a leafless tree. “How the fuck do you know?”
“Because I’m observant and pick up on verbal clues, but hell, Vincenzo, I didn’t know it was a secret. You’re a gangster who goes to pansy bars. How was I supposed to know?”
“You weren’t. Nobody’s supposed to…” Suddenly, Dominic’s actions made perfect sense to him. His world was breaking down and he had no problem watching it burn with him waiting it out in a goddamn volcano.
“Vincenzo.” His voice went softer, the way that reminded him of his mother, or his Nonna when she was younger. “You should tell her. She’d be the most understanding about how you feel.”
“No, she won’t. Laurence, listen to me. You can’t tell her the truth. She can’t know because—”
“—I don’t want her to—” He stopped.
“Okay,” he repeated, calmer. “Fine. I’ll take it to my grave. I think you should tell her, but if you’re not ready for that, that’s fine. I haven’t told Mitsuko or Sylvia some of my deepest secrets. I’m just saying that if you’re going to dedicate your life to her, it might save you some anxiety if you mentioned it to her now. It’s not like she’d think it distasteful. You might become closer—”
“This conversation is over,” Vincenzo declared. “Okay? Over. And if I catch you talking about this with her or Mitsuko, or Bobbie—”
“Oh, don’t be so dramatic. To my grave, like I said.”
“But I’m serious,” he said, his forceful nature already dwindling.
“I am, too. Like I said, we’re here for you. I’m just sorry I asked you so densely without knowing.” He looked down at Vincenzo’s hand still on him. “Now, may I go buy Dominic his Christmas present, or do you plan to threaten me again?”
He didn’t answer, and he let him go, flexing his fingers to feel himself come back to life.
Laurence tipped his hat, flicked his scarf, and left back to the record store.
Vincenzo slammed his forehead into the bark of the tree, hoping to bleed. He hadn’t gotten that angry in so long. Not so much angry, but upset for acting the way he’d been brought up to act. And how easy it was for Laurence to accept himself from both inside and outside of the Kitten. He accepted how he lived now, but if anyone “caught” him, found out what he was doing, he wanted to throw up and die.
Like he’d ever tell Sylvia that truth. He’d die with that decaying feeling deep inside of him. And that was a promise he’d never break.